Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Glazunov - Symphony No. 1

Alexander Glazunov has been called the Russian Brahms, which may or may not be a good comparison to either composer. He was one of the most remarkable child prodigies Russia ever produced. He was the son of a wealthy publisher and began piano lessons at age nine,  and began composing at age eleven.  Mily Balakirev recognized Glazunov's talent and brought him to the attention of Rimsky-Korsakov when he showed him a orchestral composition written by the young musician. Rimsky-Korsakov taught Glazunov as a private pupil beginning in 1879 and within two years Glazunov had progressed so rapidly (not day by day but by the hour) that Rimsky-Korsakov considered him a mature musician and a younger colleague.

The Symphony No. 1 was written when Glazunov was sixteen and premiered the following year in 1882. The first symphony is known as the Slavonic Symphony because of Gazunov's use of folk song like themes throughout it. The audience applauded the piece enthusiastically and when the composer went on stage to take a bow wearing his school uniform people could not believe the piece was written by one so young. In fact there were rumors started that the symphony had been written by professional composers hired by Glazunov's parents and been passed off as his own. But Rimsky-Korsakov refuted the rumors.  Glazunov and his symphony went to Europe and it was played for Liszt.  Tchaikovsky heard about the premiere and later purchased a copy of Glazunov's first string quartet and declared that the composers talent was undeniable.

Glazunov went on to become a virtuoso of the orchestra and a master of counterpoint.  He had one of the greatest musical memories ever known. He could hear a piece one time and play it perfectly, even years later. although Glazunov developed alcoholism later in life and couldn't teach without a bottle of alcohol in his desk, his phenomenal memory remained unimpaired. He went on to compose eight complete symphonies and part of a ninth. He gradually became more conservative and taught for many years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  He left soviet Russia in the 1920's and settled in Paris.

Dmitri Shostakovich was a student of Glazunov and relates many things that tell much about his character. He used his influence to help the conservatory as much as he could in the lean years after the Russian Revolution. He even refused a luxury apartment offered to him by the government in exchange for extra fire wood for the Conservatory so the students could be warm and learn better.

Glazunov's music suffered from neglect in the past, but is being played more in recent years. What was once considered old-fashioned can now be appreciated for its orchestral mastery and creativity.

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